Fresh off a pair of hard-won victories, the Purdue volleyball team is headed to Vegas.
The No. 8 Boilermakers (2-0) are set to take on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and No. 18 Washington State in the “Rebel Challenge” tonight and tomorrow.
Head coach Dave Shondell repeatedly cited the toughness of Purdue’s early-season opponents, saying the team tried to assemble a non-conference schedule that “simulated the Big Ten.”
Both the Rebels (2-1) and Cougars (0-2) made the NCAA tournament last season, exiting in the second round. UNLV had an undefeated regular season.
The tough opponents are going to be coupled with a double-edged sword: Purdue’s team depth. Thanks to the NCAA’s extra season of eligibility, Purdue is playing with a 21-woman roster. That depth creates logistical problems for the team, Shondell said.
The team is switching back and forth between fifth-year Jena Otec and senior Marissa Hornung at libero, with “five other players” who could also play the position, Shondell said. That, combined with volleyball’s limited player substitutions — 15 per match, means the team could find itself in tough late-game situations.
“If you’re not careful, you could get a lead on someone like we had with Kansas and you think, ‘OK, we can really wheel and deal here and start getting some people in,’” Shondell said. “All of a sudden, you start making some errors and Kansas comes roaring back and you can’t put people back in the game because you ran out of subs.”
That depth also creates communication issues on the sidelines. Shondell said it was hard for the team to physically gather around close enough to hear his instructions during team huddles over the weekend.
Those associated problems are a “common theme” across the NCAA, per Shondell, but so are the benefits that come with retaining experienced players and having so many available players at each position.
“Wisconsin, I watched on Saturday night, put on a clinic against Baylor,” Shondell said. “(They) returned, I think four or five seniors from a team that was ranked fourth in the country all season.”
The team has also found ways to make sure all 21 players still feel like part of the team, Hornung said. The assistant coaches have crafted drills that keep every player involved, and she personally tries to reach out and connect to her teammates.
“When you’re able to share your emotions with others and let them know that you care about them, I think that’s what helps and what makes all 21 people feel like they’re important,” Hornung said.
Purdue tips off against UNLV at 7 p.m. Thursday. The game will be broadcast on the Mountain West Network.